If you struggle with intimate relationships, you might relate to a reader who recently asked me to address love addiction. This person reported a pattern of bouncing (perhaps ricocheting?), between intimate partners. Is this love addiction or some other issue?
The Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous website explains that those with a sex or love addiction cope with struggles of loneliness, fears of abandonment, shame, and other emotions by sexualizing their relationships. As part of a desperate attempt to avoid feeling alone and vulnerable, they confuse love with emotional neediness, as well as physical attraction. They are even willing to remain in problematic or destructive relationships based on their need for connection.
From the psychological attachment theory perspective, this definition of sex and love addiction seems to describe many people who struggle with a highly anxious attachment style. People with this style of connecting tend to view themselves as unworthy, inadequate, and unlovable. There are two subgroups of anxious attached people, with each group viewing other people a bit differently.
People with a fearful avoidant style view others as emotionally unavailable. So, when they feel upset, they can’t effectively find comfort in themselves or others. The result is that they may try both, but do neither effectively. As a result, their relationships are highly emotional and problematic.
Another subgroup of anxiously attached people have a preoccupied style and view others as potential sources of comfort and support. But, because of their negative self-perceptions, they feel that they need to work hard to earn love – an effort that they must always keep up, making them “preoccupied” with earning the approval of others.
I hesitate calling the relationship struggles of highly anxiously attached people an addiction because the evidence is unclear as to whether they are experiencing a true addiction. It’s true that their love relationships may consume their lives and that they may use them to modify their mood. However, one critical aspect of addiction is that there is an increasing need for the substance or activity over time to get the same effect. I question whether this is really the case with most people who view themselves as sex or love addicts.
In any case, for these people, the overpowering need for love and approval (often experienced as a need for sex) is very real. The solution to this problem is for them to develop a sense of being worthy and lovable, as well as a sense that significant others can be relied upon to be emotionally supportive. In other words, the deep sense of aloneness and desperate need for love and approval can be relieved by nurturing a more secure attachment.
If you struggle with these issues, it can often help to work simultaneously on nurturing a positive relationship with yourself and with others. Start by observing the ways in which you experience yourself as unworthy or unlovable. Also observe how others either respond to you in emotionally supportive or rejecting ways.
Then practice allowing yourself to stay with the positive feelings that arise when you are viewed positively or supported by yourself or others. They might be fleeting, quickly overcome by your self-criticism and fear of judgment. Acknowledge these negative responses and then return your awareness to the positive ones. This can feel like a battle, perhaps even a losing one. But choose to stay with it. With time and practice, you will hopefully experience yourself more positively and allow in the caring of others.
This exercise is just a start. But by facing the inner demons that cause you inner pain, you are choosing to turn toward a better life. The path from “love addiction” to truly loving relationships with yourself and others is not an easy one, but it is one well worth the effort and struggle.
Postscript: The reader who initially wrote to me about “love addiction” said that he believes that he is finally on the path to healing and that he thinks he has found the right person for him. I am hopeful that by doing the work of healing that he has, indeed, found and is nurturing a truly loving relationship with himself and his new partner.